Robert Tannahill

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Robert Tannahill (June 3, 1774 - May 17, 1810) was a Scottish poet known as the "Paisley Poet".

A substantial portion of the introduction to William Motherwell's Harp of Renfrewshire is dedicated to discussion of Tannahill's uneventful and even-tenored existence. He showed no interest in anything outside his own home, town, and family. However, in 1809, he wrote to his friend the Renfrewshire Militiaman James King, "I see no end of this war system", revealing an understanding of the general inability of human beings to resolve serious conflicts embedded within the historical dynamic of our psychological propensity for war. At a more particular level he was focussing on something with a distinctive place in Scottish culture and history. Tannahill was entering the heart of a Scottish political debate although he has not previously been described as a political poet in any sense at all.

Tannahill's foray into the political appears a contradiction; the sensitive lyric poet goes to the centre of a political controversy with the use of one simple phrase. The reason it did not appear highly political or controversial at the time is because militarism was a central essential of Scottish culture; so everyday that Tannahill's comment would have appeared unremarkable. Most of the residents of Tannahill's home town of Paisley thought the same thing: namely, that Scotland had been involved in the business of war in one way or another for as far back as they could remember and nothing was likely to happen to change that state of affairs.

At least four socio-ideological forces were interacting in Scotland at the time to produce social tension, civil strife and experience of foreign conflict: these were firstly the martial heritage and tradition of mercenary soldiering (the Scotsman as soldier/hero), secondly the Covenanters (radical Presbyterianism, both pro and anti Union), thirdly Jacobitism (the preservation/restoration of the Stuarts) and finally international, social and class conflicts connected with the new arrangements resulting from the industrial revolution.

From at least the middle of the 16th century up to the present day tensions from one or all of these forces have mingled with pro and anti-English sentiments to manifest themselves in outbursts of differing intensity: from the destruction of Catholic religious icons, to the 1745 Jacobite rising, to the Radical War, to the Battle of George Square, to the Celtic versus Rangers and Scotland versus England football matches. All being events of tense, high drama, passion and conflict centred in the public arena which helped form the cultural consciousness of the Scots.

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